Aboriginal Suicide

Excerpt from 2000 Report Suicide in Australia, A Dying Shame, Lifeforce Suicide Prevention Program

Professor Colin Tatz, the author of the most comprehensive study on Aboriginal Suicide in Australia, notes that it has only been in recent times that suicide has emerged as an issue among Aboriginal communities. A review of Aboriginal history suggests that:

… suicide was an alien concept in Aboriginal life … It was never mentioned by Aboriginals, anthropoligists, linguists, government officials, missionaries, magistrates, pastoralists or police. In 1968, Kidson and Jones found an absence of “classical neuroses psychosomatic illness and suicide” among Western Desert people. John Cawte’s medico-sociological expedition to Arnhem Land in 1968 found “nothing alarming” about Aboriginal suicide rates … Hunter-Reser et al state that “some three decades ago the suicide of an Indigenous Australian was a rare occurrence”.

While the collection of data, specific to suicide rates by race of origin has only been a recent initiative by relevant state bodies, with information on Aboriginal peoples unreliable, it appears that suicide rates have increased considerably over the past two or three decades.

Between 1 January 1996 and 30 June 1998, 43 Aboriginal suicides were reported in NSW and the ACT alone, which equates to 40 suicides per 100,000 Aborigines per year. There were a further 31 suicides in that period amongst those of uncertain Aboriginality. If they were, as is suspected, Aboriginal suicides, then the rate would be much higher. Tatz suggests that “if the Australian figures are even reasonably accurate, Aboriginal rates are possibly two to three times the non-Aboriginal.”

Despite the limited amount of research on Aboriginal suicide, most Australian commentators acknowledge that this is a relatively recent trend, which needs to be addressed immediately and addressed as an issue different to non-Aboriginal suicide.

“Aboriginal suicide has unique social and political contests, and must be seen as a distinct phenomenon.”

It is recognised that indigenous issues cannot all be solved by non-indigenous individuals and organisations. However, that is not to say that external assistance is unwelcome, or unnecessary, and improved resources and materials for professionals working with indigenous Australians would enable us to better understand and respond to their particular needs and problems.

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